Quicksand, the Aesthetic Gaze and the Heterogeneous Subject

I would like to look at how the role of aesthetics in Quicksand relates to the “irritation” noted by Sianne Ngai in Ugly Feelings  and informs Helga’s racial consciousness.

Helga relies on the semiotic capabilities of beauty in order to string together a rational narrative of her life from the outside in, despite the inconsistency and tumult of her psyche. It is evident from the beginning, when Helga “smiles inwardly” at the message her small hats and elegant shoes send to the prim-minded employees of Naxos, who find them “positively indecent”(52). Early on, too, we learn that her entire life Helga has “loved and longed” for beautiful and pleasing “things” (41). It is in this desire for material beauty that we can find Helga’s method of anestheticizing the pervasive irritation that motivates her throughout the novel.

When the signifiers of her appearance are co-opted by the Dahls Helga enjoys it—at first. Helga invests her emotional capital in the “business” of her manufacture as an exotic aesthetic product, “[giving] herself up wholly to the fascinating business of being seen, gaped at, desired” (104). It is important to remember that Helga consents to this “aestheticization” in the beginning and that it is “intensely pleasant to her” (104). The eventual pleasure Helga finds in her beautiful appearance dissolves the initial “perturbation” (103) or irritation Helga experiences at being a “peacock” (103). In this moment Helga rejects any racial obligation to feel ashamed of her marketability in Copenhagen as an exotic and beautiful object. Her willingness to “try on” the identity the Dahls fashion for her, to try to locate her subjectivity through the eyes of her aunt, uncle and Copenhagen society, echoes the impulsiveness with which she relocates herself geographically. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness. By cultivating her own objectification Helga obtains the ontological glue, so to speak, that temporarily alleviates her riven condition.

In Copenhagen Helga purposefully seeks to claim her blackness through the gaze of the Danish. “Intentionally” she speaks the “slow, faltering Danish” she thinks makes her more attractive for its indication of foreignness, and is gratified by the attention she receives (104). In the same turn Helga criticizes black Americans as hypocritical, denouncing that they “didn’t want to be like themselves”, and desired instead to “be like their white overlords” and “were ashamed to be Negroes, but not ashamed to beg to be something else. Something inferior” (104). In adopting her aestheticized and fetishized identity Helga cultivates a counterintuitive racial pride in opposition to both whiteness and blackness. In her above critique we can read Helga’s earlier criticisms of racial uplift, here characterized as the white washing of an essential quality of blackness. That this critique emerges from Helga’s being recast as a fetish object—a luxury item with the power to promote social buoyancy—is problematic, to say the least. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness.

If Helga’s racial consciousness only manifests from the outside-in, as mediated by her beautiful environment, possessions, or appearance, then it follows that this identification exists only in that it is refracted through the eyes of another. In accordance with this triangulated aesthetic gaze, instances of beauty in the novel become representative of a symbolic observer that has the power to confer upon Helga a particular kind of social capital. Aesthetically objectified and “appraised” (81), Helga is contracted into a value (product) and thereby unified into a singular subject (paradoxically) by another’s objectifying gaze.

To be beautiful and to have beautiful things is a way to surrender to the gaze of another and so solicit the unified value that evades her internally. The pursuit and attainment of beauty alleviates temporarily the irritation Helga cannot seem to escape. In Helga’s characteristic attraction to beauty we can read her desire to anestheticize the irritation that stems from her incongruity with an ever-nagging racial binary. Even the “miraculously beautiful” (149) community she experiences in Alabama is refracted through the fervently religious eyes of Reverend Pleasant Green, her marriage to whom was tonic to the irritative rupture that occurred after her final meeting with Dr. Anderson. Helga chose, chased and conquered the Reverend as a way to still herself, to arrest her roaming consciousness and identity in favor of the numb bliss of religiosity and domesticity. Of course, at the end of the novel, in the bed after childbirth, Helga returns to her nomadic state, if only psychologically, and by the last sentence teeters on the edge of self-obliteration.

Escaping the Impasse: finding footing by forfeiting the foot? (Capture the Tag: Non-Normative and resistance).

In her blog post, Vanessa summarizes Halberstam’s vision of masochistic passivity, describing it as a form of refusal that resists the seemingly impossible situation of escaping colonial and gendered subjecthood. Halberstam’s description of the impossibility of escaping the “trap” of colonial subjecthood (you’re screwed if you do, you’re screwed if you don’t) seems to me to suggest something like Berlant’s “impasse”. In Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother, Xuela, “escapes the hereditary inscription by not only severing the ties of mother and daughter—refusing both the relationship and the roles—she “refus[es] to be anything at all” (Halberstam 131). Vanessa also suggests that, the “refus[al] to identity as African American, or simply passing as a white women,” by Clara and Irene of Larsen’s Passing (a book I myself have not read), is a refusal to be that throws off the yoke of colonially assigned identity.

If we consider the not being, or failure to struggle of Xuela, Clara, and Irene as methods of resistance that have traction because they signify a willingness to turn away from the entire machine of patriarchy and colonialism, is this method of resistance available to the members of Berlant’s “Precariat” as well?

In her blog on the subject, Calextrose identifies in Time Out’s Jean-Michel a figure of a neoliberal subject who has managed to navigate the “impasse.”  She writes: “Jean-Michel’s method of optioning upward mobility is less than honorable but effective. As Berlant mentions, Time Out manages to show how ‘different kinds of people catch up to their new situation’ (192).” This suggests that Jean-Michel’s modest empire of imitation can be read as “footing” found in the depths of the impasse, a sign that he has caught up, has negotiated the abyss of neoliberal precarity. I am inclined to (perhaps this fits the theme) half-agree. I think there is a way of reading the counterfeiting business as the ultimate neoliberal adaptation. The counterfeit merchandise, unlike the “real deal,” is never fixed to the ebb and flow of brand popularity. Unlike the true Reebok, in the event of a devaluation of the brand, the counterfeit item can always morph into an imitation of the new “winners” of the fickle market share. All while avoiding any assumption of the precariousness of the legitimate market. In the era of the “recession grimace” the counterfeit commodity, by existing outside the system of brand signification, is by the very flexibility of its nature virtually recession-proof.

However, one of the primary arguments of Berlant’s essay was that the precariousness made ubiquitous by the neoliberal dismantling of both labor regulations and social welfare programs is not new, but rather is revealed to be the reality that has always existed beneath the fantasy of infinite growth and upward mobility. For the working class, the minority, the mentally ill, the near entirety of the global south, and the criminal, precariousness has always been evident. Furthermore, as Jean-Michel belongs to that last class, the threat of a sudden, rupturing loss of stability and income is just one police officer away. Perhaps the counterfeit item is the perfect product for the neoliberal age, but the neoliberal state knows this well, and in an effort to protect their interests has often made draconian legal consequences for those who would forge. In abstract—as a hydra-headed industry that corporations must simply accept as one of the costs of doing successful business—the forger may escape the threat of capricious market forces, but the actual person who forges always runs the risk that the legal forces shaped by market forces will sniff and snuff her out.

So, if a vision of impasse-navigation is not complete in Jean-Michel, can we find sketch a vision of successful impasse-navigation by asking what Vincent does wrong?

For Calexrose, Vincent’s return to the precarious dependency of the job-market is the ultimate signal that Vincent has failed to negotiate the impasse that is afforded him outside the realm of employment. In a certain way, her reading of this turns accepted notions of precariousness on their head. In the prior configuration employment is what shields the employee from the precariousness of joblessness. In Calexrose’s reading there is something about the dependence of employment that precludes the ability to “find footing” within the neoliberal void. If this is true, what is it about unemployment that allows the member of the precariat to access “the learning curve” of the impasse, or find new footing in a way that employment prevents (Berlant 202)? Is it a question of sovereignty? By depending on a job is one not free or unattached enough to find a new way of life? This would suggest that unlike the previous model (of employment as a shield against precariousness), in the neoliberal void employment both defers the impasse and makes it impossible to truly experience the loss of bearings. This deferral/inaccessibility would prevent the employee from truly learning to adjust to the void of the impasse. If this is correct, the impasse appears fundamentally more akin to a psychoanalytic problem of maturation, one in which the employee is unable to become wholly adult or achieve neoliberal sovereignty because of their unwillingness or inability to let go of the corporate apron strings. To find footing in the void, one would have to let go of the ladder.

While I do have the feeling that if precariousness is as wide-spread a phenomenon as Berlant argues that it is, the precariousness of employment comes to be functionally equivalent to unemployment because of the way the non-permanence of the position of either creates a similar orientation towards the future. The grimace seems, to me, as much a mask of tensing for tomorrow as it is a reaction to the events of today.

The Rupture: Physical Manifestations of Irritation in Quicksand

In Ngai’s chapter on irritation she states that, “Irritation’s marginal status thus seems related to the ease with which it always threatens to slip out of the realm of emotional experience altogether, into the realm of physical or epidermal sensations.” (184). In the chapter, Ngai refers to Helga’s train trip from Naxos to Chicago, in which Helga is, “irritated…like a physical pain.” (28), to explain her point. I would like to point out a couple different episodes in which the irritation ruptures to a physical point that acts as a catalyst that takes Helga from affect to feeling to emotion, in terms of the Affect Theory, and renders her calls to action, or flight, as it were. Each one distinct in its particular political offering, yet all grounded in Helga’s relation to previous as well as current experience.

The first of these rupturing episodes is in Harlem at the cabaret she attends with her friends. At first, “It was gay, grotesque, and a little weird. Helga Crane felt singularly apart from it all…they descended through a furtive narrow passage, into a vast subterranean room.” (60). Already Helga feels distanced from the scene and any sense she was to get would be one of affectation (it is interesting to note that they “descended” into a “furtive” passage, suggesting hidden depths that are about to be discovered). This affectation continues as she was, “oblivious of the reek of flesh, smoke, and alcohol…oblivious of the color, the noise, and the grand distorted childishness of it all.” (61).  Then the music overtakes her senses and provides a feeling in which, “The essence of life seemed bodily motion.” (61). This bodily motion seems to be the catalyst of a physical sensation that creates in her a ‘feeling’ of racial self-loathing. For when the music stops Helga is shaken to, “a shameful certainty that not only had she been in the jungle, but that she had enjoyed it, began to taunt her…She wasn’t, she told herself, a jungle creature.” (61). Even though moments earlier, “the essence of life seemed bodily movement”, once the music stops a sense of shame takes hold that seems tied more to Anne Grey’s ways of seeing things than Helga’s, but the seed of emotion brought on by this ‘physical’ irritant awakens in Helga a call to action, or at least a call to flight. In the end, it takes the derisive talk by her Harlem compatriots concerning Audrey Denney, Helga’s elusive visionary double, and the pure envy and admiration that Helga feels at watching Denney dance with unabashed freedom from anyone’s gaze to actually “feel”, as she “forgot the garish crowded room. She forgot her friends. She saw only two figures, closely clinging. She felt her heart throbbing. She felt the room receding.” (64, emphasis added).  She’s gone.

The second such instance in which a physical irritant leads Helga to feelings and then emotions in which she physically acts, to once again flight, is the revival scene in which she seeks refuge from a storm (both a meteorological and mental state after having been rejected by Anderson). As she finds shelter in the revival, at first she is emotionally wrought and breaks down, though it isn’t specified what she is breaking down for (although presumably it is Anderson’s response to her) the audience she is a part of in the revival certainly doesn’t know this. Helga then composes herself to observe her surroundings and the affectation begins. There were, “shouting and groanings of the congregation. Particularly she was interested in the writhings and weepings of the feminine portion, which seemed to predominate…frenzied women gesticulated, screamed, wept, and tottered to the praying preacher, which had eventually become a candenced chant.” (114, emphasis added). The words used to describe her observations are, “entertained”, “interested”, and generally the narrative tone here is one of observation with little to no feeling involved. Then, “Fascinated, Helga Crane watched until there crept upon her an indistinct horror of an unknown world. She felt herself in the presence of a nameless people, observing rites of a remote obscure origin.” (114). So once again, the affection which Helga takes in this revival turns to feeling in which she is usually familiar but in this last and final case she is unfamiliar, “she felt an echo of the weird orgy resound in her own heart; she felt herself possessed by the same madness;…Frightened at the at the strength of the obsession, she gathered herself for one last effort to escape, but vainly.” (114, emphasis added). She goes from “felt” to gathering for one last “effort” implying an emotion, or physical manifestation of her feelings. Once again, she takes on flight, but this time it is one of submission as she relinquishes control of her own soul and body and seduces the pastor into a situation of forced matrimony.

The journey taken internally, due to external circumstances, is one that is illustrated in the actions, feelings, and emotions of Helga throughout the novel; but the scenes of physically extreme agitation are the ones in which she ruptures into action. This journey of feeling from affect, to feelings, to emotions is displayed in the syntax, diction and narrative of Quicksand and supports the irritation argument, as well as its physical manifestations, that Ngai puts forth.



Crane’s Irritating, But How?

In relation to Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand, and with most novels in general, we have to ask ourselves how we sympathize with our protagonist Helga Crane. Do my own previous experiences allow me to understand the struggle in which she goes through? Well yes in the sense that I know the struggle of constantly being on the move but that doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with all interpretations and perceived “whining” regarding her ever-changing lifestyle. Perhaps whining is too harsh a word. Sianne Ngai describes it as, “Concentrated on the protagonist’s signature aloofness… ‘irritation’ becomes the index of a more general affective opacity through Quicksand… more specifically to what we might call the problem of incorrect or ‘inadequate anger’” (175). My point is that Crane is quick to find irritation in exchanges that warrant some sort of reaction based on racial discrimination. Yet not only are these reactions unwarranted, she uses the same logic of racial discrimination as a means for being put on display.

Let’s pick this up when Helga travels from Chicago to New York by train and states conversing with Mrs. Hayes-Rore. During their conversation things become tense when the topic turns to adultery between races. Mrs. Hayes-Rore becomes distant because this kind of subject matter “was beyond definite discussion” and Helga becomes irritated by Mrs. Hayes reaction even though admittedly acknowledges that “among black people, as among white people, it is tacitly understood that these things are not mentioned” (42).  Knowing Helga has mixed heritage, she shows disdain for the reaction by “giving the support table a violent kick” (43). However this reaction isn’t warranted because using her race as an irritant, she grows incensed by the idea of a white woman being uncomfortable with a black woman talking about adultery even though Helga herself acknowledges that no matter what race you belong to, black or white, talking about these things is taboo. Yet Helga uses racial tension as a means for becoming irritated at the situation.

You could refer to that interaction as playing some sort of race card and if Helga Crane was consistent in her interpretations of events like this we would have no reason to argue because at least she would be staying to true to her value of being upset whenever race was brought up in any format. Of course she isn’t consistent though. Right before she leaves Chicago, she visits a “Negro Episcopal” church even though she isn’t religious. “She hoped that some good Christian would speak to her, invite her to return, or inquire kindly if she was a stranger in the city. None did, and she became bitter, distrusting religion more than ever” (37). All of the things she’s wishing to happen to her in this moment require attention, for her to be made into some sort of spectacle. Since nothing happens she becomes irritated. What dooms her here is the “othering” of the church. Again we know Helga’s background so by referring to it as “Negro Episcopal,” would she really have to do that if she identifies as mixed race already? She becomes irritated because of a racial activity, or in this case, inactivity.

Even if you take the title Quicksand for example and try to draw something from that, what do you get? Sand itself is a irritant of the skin so there’s possibility of Larsen trying to tell us that Crane is quick to get irritated? Maybe, but perhaps Ngai says it best when referring to inadequate anger. Crane exercises power over situations when she shows control of her emotions like when having to deal with the constant marriage proposals from Herr Olson. She surpasses her anger but she constantly finds her irritation getting the best of her. By getting irritated at every possible point she can, she could be subconsciously trying to show some sort of control over this emotion that seems to always overcome her.

I digress, the question is how does affect theory apply here? Well for me personally, I see the struggle for Helga’s character having to constantly be on the move. I can’t related to her racial discrimination but more importantly, however, I just don’t necessarily look favorably upon people who are always trying to find a reason to complain.